The “Syria issue” is so complex and volatile that any reflection on it is likely to be outdated by the time it is expressed.
That being said, the discussion of the issue has illustrated pretty clearly the burden of global citizenship.
The responsibilities of citizenship, it seems, are much easier to define in local, state and national contexts where the governing structures that can establish and enforce principles of order and justice are clearer.
On an international scale, the ethical frameworks are less evident. In the present case – where the violation of a near universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons has led to the deaths of well over 1,000 men, women and children, according to U.S. reports – global citizens have struggled with how to respond.
Principles in the mix of ethical concern include:
â— National security interests
â— Humanitarian concern
â— Moral and legal accountability
â— Responsible use of military power
â— Cooperation, or lack of it, of international partners
The relation of punitive retaliation for egregious cruelty and the hope of a less violent negotiated settlement that will prevent further atrocity seem to be a global correlate to our discussions of our local criminal justice systems that struggle with the relation of retaliation and rehabilitation.
Part of the burden of being a world power is the breadth and scope of global responsibility that accompanies it. The wrenching decisions to ignore atrocities, use deadly force with much “collateral damage” or seek a diplomatic, political resolution in response are never easy and usually not clear.
Deliberations on the “right thing to do” are often difficult on a personal level, especially when the values involved are in conflict with each other. On a global scale, they are even more so.
So, what contribution can Christian ethical thinking make to our efforts to discern a responsible course in the Syrian situation?
Do we “turn the other cheek” and “respond to evil with good” when hundreds have been gassed? Or do we respond with force in an effort to stop it and prevent its recurrence?
Long and short views of history reveal to us times when people have looked the other way when atrocities were occurring. Recall Dachau and Auschwitz, Rwanda and the Sudan, as well as other less publicized abuses of humanity.
We can also see where intervention can serve other motives and lead to tragic outcomes. Recall Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does a Christian ethic counsel a passive but prayerful non-intervention that avoids the risks and frustrations of future hostilities? Or does it call us to an active and forceful “surgical” engagement that shows that we “mean business”?
There do not seem to be easy or clear answers to such complex challenges. An ethic of love and justice is often short on specific answers to our more significant challenges, especially on a global scale.
Maybe a Christian ethic offers a way of ordering the priorities of our conflicting values.
Such ordering can help ensure that the decisions we make are consistent with what the eyes of faith see disclosed of God in the life and teachings of Christ, rather than being reflective primarily of a concern with economics, national security, popularity or political expediency.
Beyond the right and wrong of specific actions, an ethic that grows out of Christian faith seems to focus on the well being of the vulnerable. An ethic of this kind might guide us toward a response that focuses on the victims of cruelty.
A redemptive response on their behalf might well involve a use of force against a perpetrator, but its reason would be protection against subsequent acts of harm.
Stopping mass murder is quite probably a “Christian” thing to do, but there seems to be a difference between a passion for “getting the bad guy” leading to military action and compassion for the victims leading to efforts to provide for their protection.
For ethics, the “why” seems a more important question than the “what.”
Perhaps such an ethic might lead to a response beyond the either/or of military strike or negotiated settlement to a level of humanitarian assistance to the suffering parties that would send a different and substantive message about who we are as global citizens.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.